Screening History: “David and Bathsheba” (1951)

Not long ago, I had the joy of rewatching Henry King’s subdued yet powerful David and Bathsheba, a biblical epic that is more thoughtful than most and that has yet to receive the credit it deserves.  It is unfortunate that it came before the era of widescreen and the masterpieces that emerged in the latter part of the 1950s and early 1960s:  The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and even some films that were only recognized as classics after the fact, such as Nicholas Ray’s Christ biopic King of Kings (1961).  Nevertheless, as a rather anomalous entry in a genre that is often either critically neglected or regarded with camp humour and derision, David and Bathsheba is a fascinating glimpse into what a genre can do when it is still taking shape.

The film stars Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward as the title pair of star-crossed biblical lovers, David and Bathsheba.  David is the tormented and contradictory king of Israel, while Bathsheba is the lusty and desirable wife of Uriah, one of David’s faithful (if rather dense and often unfeeling) soldiers.  When David sees Bathsheba bathing (not realizing that she has rendered herself visible to him, knowing that he will see her), he falls head over heels in lust/love with her, setting off a chain of events that will lead to the premeditated death of Uriah and the divine, prophetic wrath of the scold Nathan (Raymond Massey in all of his biblical, patriarchal glory).  Eventually the two lovers are forgiven by God, and the film ends happily, if somewhat unsettlingly, ever after.

When I first watched this film several years ago, I was stunned by how sensitive the film was to the experiences of biblical women.  The historico-biblical epic, after all, is not known for being a genre especially concerned with the female experience (or the experience of many minorities, for that matter), but this film is part of that very small subset of epics that actually give any amount of attention to women (others include DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and the much later The Story of Ruth).  Bathsheba is a woman frustrated with the way in which her society denies her any power and control over her destiny and especially angered by her husband Uriah’s refusal to either satisfy her own sexual needs or indeed grant her any agency whatsoever (or even to acknowledge that she would want it).  Uriah is the biblical patriarchal figure distilled into its finest essence, utterly unconcerned with women except inasmuch as they serve the needs of men.

While I am not Susan Hayward’s biggest fan, she does manage to convey a measure of the enigmatic female beauty that no doubt drew David down the path of self-destruction.  Yet despite the fact that she emerges as the film’s femme fatale figure (the film reads as much as a noir as it does an epic).  What’s more, she also admirably captures the frustrations that Bathsheba experiences in a world designed to oppress women.  That being the case, she uses the only weapons this world has given her:  her body and her sexuality.  While the film stops just short of valorizing this, it does offer a sympathetic view of the ways in which a set of social institutions can imprison a woman so that she feels she has no other way out except her body.

Peck, likewise, brings to the role of David a great measure of conflicted and tortured masculinity.  With his deep, powerful voice and handsome features, one can easily understand ow why and how Bathsheba would have risked everything to be with this truly kingly figure.  As with so many of his finest roles, Peck manages to convey sensitivity without abrogating the masculine persona that makes him such an erotically appealing hero.  Beneath that breathtakingly handsome face there roils the sexually and spiritually haunted man, haunted by the death of his childhood friend (and something more?) Jonathan, and by the fact that he has given up his connection with his God in order to pursue the woman whom he truly loves.

Massey’s Nathan is a perfect counterpart to Peck’s David, a truly patriarchal figure, his stentorian voice and granite-like features fitting the part of the punishing prophet of the Old Testament.  His thunderous condemnations of David’s adultery is a perpetual reminder of the fundamentally repressive nature of this ancient world, where sexual desire is always wedded to the possibility of death.  The Old Testament God is a wrathful entity, determined to reign in and keep in check the powers of the flesh and the unruliness of sexual desire.

The film’s subdued yet seething aesthetic may have something to do with the studio that produced it.  Fox, after all, was a studio that was quite famous for its social problem films, and indeed studio head Zanuck was always obsessed with creating a story that had compelling and conflicted characters at its heart.  While not as grand in scope as some of its successors and contemporaries (it is interesting to note that MGM’s lush, sumptuous, and decadent Quo Vadis premiered the same year as this film), David and Bathsheba is nevertheless a compelling and thoughtful meditation on the role of sexual desire and the damage that it can inflect upon those who experience and encounter it.

Score:  10/10

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